Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1960–1961

This is the eleventh in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we enter the 1960s.

The Mennonite

In the late 1940s, the confluence of a sympathetic acting editor and the newly emerging modern war tax resistance movement led to a brief flurry of articles on the subject in The Mennonite. This died down considerably, and mentions of war tax resistance became more dismissive and infrequent, until the late 1950s when the paper began to again treat the subject in depth and with respect.

Now we’re up to the 1960s, a decade in which war tax resistance became more prominent in the anti-war movement, and that movement itself became more mainstream. Would Mennonites lead or follow? Let’s see what clues we can find in The Mennonite.

The issue included this borrowing:

War, Taxes, Stewardship

Stewardship “is a fearfully neglected aspect of the Christian gospel in our time.” Roy Pearson, dean of Andover Newton Theological School, tells us in the January 1960 issue of Pulpit Digest how his conscience was shaken:

“One day, I read that the national budget proposed for called for expenditures of $71.8 billion and that ‘items related to present and past defense’ composed 80 per cent of it, ‘leaving about $14 billion for all other federal activities from combating floods and narcotic smugglers to minting pennies and keeping up the price of peanuts.’ I thought of a man I know who has an income of $10,000 a year, who pays an income tax of $2000, and who gives $300 to the church and various charities. Eighty per cent of his income tax presumably is spent for national defense. That means that $1,600 of his money goes for bombs and bayonets and $300 for preaching and teaching; $1,600 for poison gas and hand grenades and $300 for cancer clinics and mental hospitals; $1,600 for submarines and aircraft carriers and $300 for social workers in the slums and chaplains in the prisons. And then I asked myself, is this simply ‘too bad’? Is this just ‘a necessary evil’? Is this nothing more than another burden which we have to carry because of Russia’s threat to our security? Or could it be that this is sin against the God who put within the reach of man the iron and the steel which, shaped now into swords and spears, was meant instead for pruning hooks and plowshares?”

The issue included a remarkable exchange of letters between John F. Enns and the U.S. Treasury Department. Enns pointed out the incompatibility of his Christian conscience and the spending priorities of the government, and begged permission to pay his taxes to some particular, unoffensive branch of government rather than to the Treasury as a whole. Someone (the writer is not named) from the Treasury Department responds:

I agree with the conclusion reached in your letter… that it is a terrible indictment of mankind that almost two-thirds of our total budget is spent for the preparation of war. On the other hand, it may be that through the spending of all this money and the ingenuity of the human mind man has produced a device so terrible that any potentate would fear to unleash the forces of the machine, and thus through its inherent horror would prevent the killing of man, which we both abhor. It may be that through the payment of taxes we are helping to prevent the killing of man.

I know of no provision whereby one’s liability for the payment of taxes may be discharged by the payment of a like amount to any fund other than the treasury of the United States. May I, therefore, suggest that you pursue the same procedure that all other citizens of the United States follow.

I appreciate the time you have taken to express your views in this matter and join you in the hope that Divine Providence will so guide mankind that the vast sums of money we are now spending in military preparation may, in some way, be diverted to the upbuilding of the human race.

The National Service Board for Religious Objectors was still a going concern at this point, and its executive council met on . A later article on the meeting noted:

In response to general interest expressed by various individuals and groups, the NSBRO has taken leadership recently in preliminary exploration of possibilities for a meaningful and feasible tax alternative. There is little precedent for a tax alternative for those opposed to the huge portion of the tax dollar which goes for military purposes and it appears that there would be a great many administrative difficulties which would stand in the way of implementing such a program, even if governmental approval could be obtained.

In a “Peace and Social Concerns Committee” of the “Board of Christian Service” met. A variety of topics were discussed, including “what the church should say about the use of income taxes for war purposes”.

An article about taxes in the issue covered some banal issues about why you shouldn’t cheat, why it isn’t shameful to take legal tax deductions, and why it’s important to keep good records. But then it continued:

Thinking Christians are concerned over the large percentage of the government budget which goes for war. This is a legitimate concern. While we cannot change the federal government structure, we can begin with our own lives and reduce the amount of tax we pay. The government encourages citizens to give to private charitable, educational, and religious causes. To do so is clearly within the framework of the law. Some have felt we should have the privilege of marking our tax money for certain functions of government. Here we have a voluntary privilege of earmarking our money for the highest good.

Depending on the size of family, medical expenditures, total income and other factors, many have been able to greatly reduce or actually eliminate the need to pay taxes. Depending on this blend of circumstances, the “fade out” time comes somewhere between 22% to 30% of our giving. Obviously this depends on many circumstances. Through adjustment in living patterns which actually add to the zest of life, many can sharply increase their giving to the work of the Lord and also solve part of the conscience problem involved in military expenditures.

The annual report of the Mennonite Central Committee noted that “Serious discussion on the question of whether the nonresistant Christian can in good conscience pay income taxes which go so heavily for war purposes has continued.”

Richard Reimer tried to talk things back down in the issue. Excerpts:

Recently many Christians as well as non-Christians have become increasingly concerned about the vast sums of money which are being spent throughout the world for armaments. It is proper and commendable that Mennonites in the United States and Canada should be concerned about the billions of dollars which are being spent by these two countries for national defense. In view of this vast military expenditure, the dilemma faced by the Christian pacifist with regard to paying federal taxes becomes readily apparent. It is gratifying to see that a number of very serious-minded people have questioned the implications involved in paying federal taxes and have found them to be at variance with the doctrine of Christian love.

While the concern expressed by these people is gratifying, the solutions which have been proposed are rather disappointing. The proposals that have been advanced appear to fall into two categories: (1) that an attempt be made to get some sort of legislation passed which would allow the Christian pacifist to pay his federal income tax directly to some non-military agency of the federal government, or (2) that the Christian pacifist be exempted from all or part of his federal income tax and that the money be paid, instead, to some charitable organization. At best these proposals could only slightly ease the Christian pacifists’ conscience and furthermore they really don’t reach the heart of the problem, i.e., the armaments race.

Let us examine these suggestions a little more closely. At the present time, except in the case of some taxes which are earmarked for specific purposes, all taxes are paid to the U.S. treasury. Disbursements are made from the treasury to the various governmental agencies by Congressional action. Even if a law could be passed allowing the pacifist to make his income tax payments directly to some non-military department of the government, this would simply mean that smaller appropriations from the treasury would need to be made to that particular agency, which would allow the same amount of money to be spent for national defense. While the pacifist could claim that at least his money wasn’t being spent for armaments, the fact remains that money is a completely homogenous commodity and it matters not one iota whose money is being spent for what purpose.

The proposal that some method of income tax exemption be sought, and that instead the tax money be donated to some nongovernmental charitable organization is certainly commendable to the extent that these organizations could certainly use additional funds. However, less than half of the federal government’s receipts come from individual income taxes and all of us would continue to contribute to the armaments race in other ways. Furthermore, the direct net effect as far as the federal government is concerned would be to only very slightly reduce its tax receipts. Now the federal government can finance its expenditures in a number of ways: (1) taxes, (2) borrowing from private individuals, (3) borrowing from commercial banks, (4) printing money. A modern method of financing government expenditures, which was used extensively in the United States during and following World War Ⅱ and which is equivalent to printing money, is borrowing through the Federal Reserve Bank. Thus it can be seen that all federal taxes could be eliminated entirely and all functions of the government, including national defense, could continue as before. It is true, of course, that in normal times this type of policy would be highly inflationary (but that is another problem).

For these reasons a refusal to pay federal taxes would not solve the Christian’s dilemma, for it matters very little whether 50 per cent of a 80 billion dollar budget or 57 per cent of a 70 billion dollar budget is spent for national defense. What does matter and what needs to be our real concern is that with a gross national product currently running at 500 billion dollars annually, approximately eight per cent of our nation’s productive effort is being channeled directly into national defense. Neither can we excuse ourselves by saying that as farmers, teachers, and doctors we do not contribute to the defense effort, because in our present-day economy each industry is related to the various other industries so that the products of one are the inputs of another. Just as the steel worker contributes to the production of tanks and guns so the schoolteacher contributes to the training of the future nuclear physicist or the germ warfare biologist.

A more positive approach to the problem would be to support those programs of the government which may help to bring about conditions which make disarmament possible. For instance, during the past several years the Eisenhower administration has requested a small amount of money for research on the problems of disarmament. However, the appropriation was never made by Congress. During the past presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy endorsed a similar proposal. Thus far the Mennonite people have not seen fit to lend their support to this constructive proposal. In addition, Kennedy has also endorsed the idea of a “Peace Corps” which would allow qualified young people to serve abroad in underdeveloped countries to aid in their economic and cultural development. Such service would be considered an alternative to military service. Depending on the particular form such a “Peace Corps” would take, this appears to be one of the most constructive ideas for world peace that has been advanced in recent years. Because of the peculiar heritage of the Mennonite church and its experience through MCC, it is quite possible that the Mennonites could make a significant contribution in this area.

There are those who believe that the Mennonite church has a mission to perform in this world, in this age. Recently a research organization, the Institute of Mennonite Studies, has been formed. In view of the serious nature of the present arms race it might be extremely beneficial if this organization would direct its efforts to the problem of the arms race and the contribution which pacifists can make toward the solution of the problem.

The solution to this problem is neither simple nor will it come quickly. Nevertheless, if the Christian pacifist is to make a positive contribution which is relevant to the present situation, continued effort must be made toward its solution. But in so doing, let us not waste our time following paths which end nowhere or lead us further down the path of withdrawal and complacency of thinking that at least directly, we are not to blame for the evils of the world when in fact our very withdrawal has, at least in part, contributed to the evils to which we close our eyes.